What do the nine names of Durga signify?
Here’s a ready reckoner.
Today is the first day of the Sharadiya Navaratra (the nine nights of autumn), during which the Navadurga, the nine forms of the Hindu goddess Durga, are worshipped.
The nine forms are famously mentioned in the Devi-kavacha, a 56-verse hymn which is traditionally recited at the beginning of the Devi-Mahatmya (or Durga-saptashati) by Hindus during Navaratra.
Though not a part of the Durga-saptashati, the viniyoga of the Devi-kavacha says it is recited as a part (‘anga’ of the recitation of the saptashati.
In the third, fourth, and fifth verses of the Devi-kavacha, Brahma tells Markandeya the names of the Navadurga goddesses — Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kalaratri, Mahagauri, and Siddhidatri.
In this article, these names are explained and compared with similar names of the goddess Lalita in Lalita-sahasranama. Insights from Mahesha Thakkura’s Pradipa, a Sanskrit commentary on the Devi-Kavacha and Bhaskararaya’s Saubhagya-bhaskara commentary on the Lalita-sahasranama are also presented.
1) Shailaputri (śailaputrī, शैलपुत्री)
The word ‘shaila’ means ‘a mountain’, referring to the Himalaya, and the word ‘putrī’ means a ‘daughter’. Thus, the name ‘Shailaputri’ means ‘the daughter of the mountain, i.e. Himalaya’.
The name ‘Shailaputri’ refers to Parvati (the name ‘Parvati’ also means ‘the daughter of the mountain or Himalaya’) and is used for Parvati in many Hindu works including the Valmiki Ramayana (e.g., in verse 1.36.27).
The name can also mean “she who purifies the mountain or Himalaya”, since the word ‘putri’ (like ‘putra’) comes from the root ‘pu’ (to make clean or pure as per the Unadi-Sutra (4.164).
In the Kumarasambhava (1.23), Kalidasa beautifully describes that on the day of Parvati’s birth, the directions (regions or skies) were clear and the breeze was without any dust.
A similar name in the Lalita-sahasranama is ‘shailendratanaya’ (name 634) which means ‘the daughter of the king of the mountains, i.e. Himalaya’. In the Kumarasambhava (verse 5.84), Kalidasa uses a very similar word ‘shailadhirajatanaya’ while describing the bashful state of Parvati on seeing Shiva as follows — “she neither left nor stayed, as if a turmoiled river blocked by a mountain in its course.”
2) Brahmacharini (brahmacāriṇī, ब्रह्मचारिणी)
This name comes from the word ‘brahman’ and the root √char (to move, to roam about, to pervade, to be engaged, absorbed in). The word ‘brahman’ has several meanings including Veda, the supreme god, and askesis (tapas).
The word ‘brahmacharini’ literally means ‘she whose nature is to be engaged in brahman’. The Shabdakalpadruma cites a verse, attributed to the Devi Purana, which says ‘she is called Brahmacharini since she is engaged (resides) in the Vedas.’
Brahmacharini also means ‘she who is absorbed in askesis’, a reference to Parvati’s ‘tapas’. Another name related to the ‘tapas’ of Parvati is Uma, which Kalidasa explains in the Kumarasambhava (verse 1.26) as “O (‘u’), don’t (‘ma’), thus prevented by her mother from ‘tapas’, she with a beautiful face got the name Uma.”
The Pradipa commentary gives a third meaning of the name Brahmacharini as “she who makes [somebody] reach Brahman”.
The 265th name of Lalita in the Lalita-sahasranama is ‘brahma-rupa’, or ‘she who is Brahman itself’.
3) Chandraghanta (candraghaṇṭā, चन्द्रघण्टा)
This name comes from the words ‘chandra’ (the moon) and ‘ghanta’ (bell). The name means ‘she whose bell has the moon’ or ‘she whose bell is [delightful] like the moon’. The Pradipa commentary on the Devi-Mahatmya gives another meaning by deriving the name from ‘chandra’ and the root ‘ghant’ (to speak) — ‘she who answers the moon’, i.e. she is even more beautiful than the moon.
The Lalita-sahasranama has several names with ‘chandra’, one of which is ‘chandranibha’ (name 592) which means ‘she who is like the moon’. Bhaskararya comments that the name refers to the moon as conceived below the ‘brahma-randhra’.
4) Kushmanda (kūṣmāṇḍā, कूष्माण्डा)
This mystic name comes from the words ‘ku’ (“a little” or “bad”), ‘ushma’ (heat), and ‘anda’ (an egg, but here referring to ‘brahmanda’ or ‘the universe’ and also ‘a muscle’). Prima facie, the name ‘Kushmanda’ means ‘she whose ‘anda’ (universe) is slightly warm’. As per the Pradipa, ‘kushma’ refers to the world which has terrible pains (the three ‘tapas — the word ‘tapa’ means both ‘heat’ and ‘pain’ in Sanskrit), and so ‘kushmanda’ means ‘she whose abdomen muscles contain the world’, i.e. she who swallows the world.
While this interpretation of ‘kushmanda’ has this sense of destruction of ‘brahmanda’, the name ‘Lila-klipta-brahmanda-mandala’ (name 648) of Lalita in the Lalita-sahasranama has the opposite sense. The name means ‘she who effortlessly brings about (creates) the universe’.
5) Skandamata (skandamātā, स्कन्दमाता)
‘Skanda’ is the famous name of Kartikeya, one of the two sons of Parvati and Shiva as per Puranic accounts. The obvious meaning of ‘Skandamata’ is the mother (‘mata’) of Skanda. As per the Chandogya-upanishad (7.25.2), ‘skanda’ is also a name of Sanatkumara. Based on this, the Pradipa says that ‘Skandamata’ means she who is like a mother to the enlightened beings like Sanatkumāra who long for birth from her womb.
The 836th name of Lalita in the Lalita-sahsranama is ‘vīramātā’ which means “the mother of the brave hero”. This word ‘vira’ here can be understood as a reference to Kartikeya, the god of war and the commander of devas’ army.
6) Katyayani (Kātyāyanī, कात्यायनी)
The word Katyayana means “a descendant of Rishi Kata”. The word is not used for the son or daughter (‘apatya’) of Kata but for a descendant from the third generation onwards (‘gotrapatya’). She who is associated with Katyayana is called Katyayani. As per Puranic accounts, Katyayani was first worshipped by Rishi Katyayana (a descendant of Kata) and so she is called Katyayani. The Pradipa says that Katyayani manifested in the ashram of Katyayana for the sake of the devas, hence she was so named.
The name Katyayani also occurs in the Lalita-sahasranama (name 556). Bhaskararaya cites a verse from the Devi-Purana which goes: “She is considered Katyayani due to holding and residing (dwelling), ‘ka’ being Brahman, the head, or iron.” The verse suggests that the word Katyayani is to be considered as a compound of ‘ka’ (which means Brahman, the head, or iron) and ‘atyayani’ which means “she who goes beyond” and is to be understood as “she who goes holds or dwells in Brahman, the head, and iron”.
7) Kalaratri (Kālarātri, कालरात्रि)
This name comes from the words ‘kala’ (‘dark’, ‘time’, and also ‘Death’) and ‘ratri’ (‘night’). The word ‘kalaratri’ means the night of destruction. As a name of Durga, the word means “the night in the form of annihilation (pralaya)” or, as the Pradipa interprets, “the night, i.e. destroyer, of even the all-destroying Kala”. The name may also be interpreted as “the dark destroyer”, a reference to the Kali form of the goddess.
A similar name of Lalita in the Lalita-sahasranama is ‘kalaratryadi-shaktyaugha-vrita’ (name 491) which means “she who is surrounded by the group of shaktis like kalaratri”.
Interestingly, the word ‘kalaratri’ also means the night of Dipavali, which falls on a new moon night, in Sanskrit. In this context, the word means “the dark night”.
8) Mahagauri (mahāgaurī, महागौरी)
The name comes from the words ‘maha’ and ‘gauri’. The word ‘maha’ (from ‘mahat’, literally “one who is worshipped”) means “great, large” and ‘gauri’ means “she with a white or yellow complexion”.
Mahagauri is the fair-complexioned form of Devi, who as per the Pradipa is very proud of herself (‘mahamanini’).
The word ‘gauri’ means ‘vaak’ or speech as per the Nighantu. The word ‘gauri’ in the mantra 1.164.41 of the Rigveda-samhita is explained as “speech as Shabda Brahman”. With this meaning, the name ‘mahāgaurī’ can be understood as “the great speech”.
In the Lalita-sahasranama, one of the names (#635) is ‘gauri’. Commenting on this name, Bhaskararaya cites a verse (attributed to the Devi-Purana) which describes the fair complexion of Gauri — “She who was burned by the fire of yoga was born again from Himalaya. Her complexion was like the conch, the jasmine flower, and the moon, hence she was known as Gauri.”
9) Siddhidatri/Siddhida (siddhidātrī/siddhidā, सिद्धिदात्री/सिद्धिदा)
The Gita Press edition has the name as Siddhidatri while the text commented by Mahesha Thakkura has the name as Siddhida. Both names have the same meanings as they come from the words ‘siddhi’ and the root ‘da’ (‘to give, to bestow’). The word ‘siddhi’ (literally ‘accomplishment’) refers to the eight ‘siddhis’ (‘anima’, ‘mahima’, ‘garima’, ‘laghima’, ‘prapti’, ‘prakamya’, ‘ishitva’, and ‘vashitva’) as well as moksha. The word ‘datri’ or ‘da’ means “she who bestows”. Thus, the meaning of ‘siddhidatri’ or ‘siddhi’ is the bestower of the eight siddhis and the bestower of moksha.
A related name of Lalita in the Lalita-sahasranama is ‘Mahasiddhi’ (name 224), which as per Bhaskararaya means “she who is a great siddhi” and “she whose siddhis are great”.
May the Navaratra bring the auspicious blessings of the Navadurgas.